Kati Laakso makes a journey to the Nevada desert to take part in the Burning Man event, which centers around community building, celebration, and creative socializing. She discovers a thing or two about herself and human nature during her time in the desert.
Having contemplated on my experiences at Burning Man for nearly a month now I can say with confidence that explaining it to an adult feels pretty much like explaining the universe to a kid. There are so many parts to it, so many interconnected particles and so much energy, wonder and magic, that it’s quite hard to put into words. As Burning Man’s website states, it is ”not your usual festival. It’s a vibrant participatory metropolis generated by its citizens.” This is true. It’s also a social experiment that gives you exactly as much as you are willing to give of yourself.
History and the ten principles
Burning Man started in 1986 when Larry Harvey and some of his friends gathered at Baker Beach in San Francisco. A wooden burning figure was part of the celebration from the beginning, although this year the burning man was having technical problems that prevented it from turning around (which, if it had worked would have made quite a show). In 1990 the authorities in San Francisco had seen enough and Burning Man was moved from the beach to a rather different environment, the middle of a dusty desert named Black Rock Desert in Nevada. What started off as a personal celebration among friends has turned into an annual gathering of some 70 000 people.
The ten guiding principles of Burning Man are born out of its ethos and include for example radical self-reliance, communal effort, civic responsibility, gifting, as well as leaving no trace. What is interesting to note is that people at the Playa (as the area is called during the week-long celebration) take these principles very seriously. Getting 70 000 self-absorbed individuals to obey guidelines that they don’t live by in their daily lives is quite an achievement in itself, and proof of how seriously the participants take the event. The gifting part is especially fascinating since it seemed that one could easily live of other people for a whole week in the midst of a hot desert. There was so much food, drinks and love on offer when taking my daily bike rides around the dusty ”town”. Also the “leave no trace” principle has been internalised well, and I saw several Burners picking up as small particles as hair from the sand after the week was over. That, if anything, can be called dedication to the cause.
Burning Man started in 1986 when Larry Harvey and some of his friends gathered at Baker Beach in San Francisco. A wooden burning figure was part of the celebration from the beginning, although this year the burning man was having technical problems that prevented it from turning around.
Preparing for Burning Man should not be taken lightly. Packing for one week in the desert is serious business, especially if costumes and other party items are to be included. I had my share of fun just browsing through clothes to take with me although as a rookie I definitely missed out on this part. Even as a former scout I was rather concerned about living in a tent for a week, but funnily enough it’s one of the things I miss most already. In hindsight I realize that it feels quite liberating to be surrounded only by the objects which you need to survive. It’s like the ultimate KonMari.
The camp one chooses to stay at defines the experience to a large extent, as does the company. I was extremely lucky to be able to stay with Burners Without Borders which is a community-led NGO that initiates civic projects and disaster relief in local communities around the world. The camp was so well organized, clean, and full of interesting people and an engaging program that one could easily have stayed there for the whole week. However, venturing out with your bike and encountering new people and experiences is at the core of the week and highly recommended. The hundreds of events, seminars, yoga groups, and other parties will keep you amused forever. The themed camps are especially interesting since they offer programs throughout the week, like the Nordic camp that had a sauna bus with special sauna meditation – it was quite an experience to enjoy a good Finnish sauna after not having showered for four days in a row.
Burning Man has for years released a census after each festival, noting that ”although the BRC Census is technically a survey and not a real census, it provides the most complete picture of the highly diverse population of Black Rock City.” As the material reveals people come to Burning Man with very different ideas about what it means for them, and what they are looking for. For many the communal part plays a major factor, but also the art, creativity, self-discovery, partying, and undeniably, just the possibility to be able to check it off your bucket list, are reasons for coming. In recent years Burning Man has been criticized for having become too mainstream and attractive to the rich and famous. However, there’s no way I would call it mainstream. That’s how special Burning Man remains. It’s also a small micro-version of our society and therefore cannot escape all of the problems of the real world.
Burning Man has so many great attributes that it’s hard to know where to begin. For many, I’m sure, it’s a quick fix of positive energy, adrenaline and elixir. The following is a quote from a discussion with a new friend I made: ”Burning Man is a place where we can all be nice to each other for one week, and then go back to the real world and continue being the assholes we are used to.” The people I met during the week seemed to be open to explorations and mostly anything, although I was surprised not to see a single sexual act during the whole week. Admittedly, I did miss visiting the ‘orgy camp’…
People come to Burning Man with very different ideas about what it means for them, and what they are looking for. For many the communal part plays a major factor, but also the art, creativity, self-discovery, partying, and undeniably, just the possibility to be able to check it off your bucket list, are reasons for coming.
Burning Man teaches not only about basic survival skills (a week in the desert is quite a good test) but also about the way we relate to others and the world, and the walls and restricting elements that are present in our own lives. Being free of all this for a week makes you question your daily life and its activities once you are back at it. According to research by Burning Man most people feel the positive change they discovered during the week for a long time afterwards.
Community and the Finnish Koulu on Fire
The whole week is centered around community building, helping each other, and acting out of the belief that together we can achieve more than alone. The theme camps are mostly amazing structures built by the people setting their tents within them. Many of the camps were built long into Wednesday only to be taken down again on Friday already. The process really seemed to be the goal, not the results. Just like co-founder Larry Harvey said in a recent interview with Financial Times, ”progress comes from struggle, shared with others, towards some common goal, it doesn’t come from love per se.” To me this is quite the perfect summary of what was going on in the desert during this particular week. It was definitely not love per se but something bigger. Sometimes struggle really is able to bring out the best of us.
I participated in Burning Man as part of the Finnish project Koulu on Fire, that took over one of the guild spaces around the man himself to engage burners in peer to peer learning. This year was the second time when Finland´s regional contact for Burning Man, Anssi Laurila, together with Andrew Clutterbuck, took Finnish burners to the Playa. The Koulu School project is based on a peer-learning concept originally developed by think tank Demos Helsinki based on extensive review on theories of learning and pedagogy. With the Koulu teacher training anyone can be turned into a teacher who then can teach any knowledge or a skill to others. The Koulu project became a huge success. It was astonishing to notice how many people came to see it exclusively since Finland has a good reputation in education. After Burning Man, the crew behind the project will evaluate its implementation and impact, and start planning on how to transport the concept to refugee camps or other temporary settlements where resources are scarce and the infrastructure low and underdeveloped.
Just like co-founder Larry Harvey said in a recent interview with Financial Times: progress comes from struggle, shared with others, towards some common goal, it doesn’t come from love per se.
Utopias and our daily life
Whatever one thinks of the concept of Burning Man, it’s still very unique. There are not enough places on this planet where we would give ourselves and others the freedom to truly be the ones we want to be, and act out of purely our own intentions. What is astonishing is that the week seemed to bring the best out of most people. Burning Man, along with a few other festivals and its own regional events, seems to give this creative space and freedom, even if only for some days per year. And maybe the utopia would not last much longer even if that was an option.
What was most powerful for myself during the week was the power of letting go. With an overflow of everything in our daily lives it is essential to be left with nothing for a while. The scarcity of belongings, money, privacy, personal hygiene and space connected to harsh weather conditions leaves one quite bare to the bone. The sandstorms and the fact that we possess no power against the forces of nature was quite a strong reminder too. The space left gives one freedom to explore who we really want to be, what we really like to do, and finally let’s us freely play for a week before going back home and realizing how much that one week actually was able to change our minds and thoughts.
For a week everyone is able to create their own little utopia, and then back home decide how much of that utopia they are willing and able to incorporate into their own daily lives.
The week to me felt like a ritual that has been designed loosely but that works very strategically. First you build a community and strive towards a common goal (making your camp as weatherproof as is possible), then explore the hundreds of camps and more than 300 artworks. Then meet 70 000 new people and stay awake until you can’t tell the sunset from the sunrise anymore. Then at the end of the week you burn down some gorgeous art work and buildings. The burning of these buildings was a rather purifying experience. The temple in all its majesty and spiritual energy was a safe haven for many during the whole week. It also functioned as an altar where people left whatever they needed to get rid of in their lives. Seeing it burn down among the silence that only 70 000 people sitting in quietness together can achieve is quite an unforgettable experience. Compared to this the burning of the man felt like an ancient bacchanal with no deeper meaning than to celebrate.
Burning Man, as life, is full of contradictions. What defines the experience is the attitude one takes towards it. One thing is certain: places like this do not exist in large numbers, and once you get the hang of it, you might just fall in love with it.
For more information about the Finnish Koulu on Fire please see www.kouluonfire.com